A Linguistic Comparison
Two Notation Systems for Signed Languages:
Stokoe Notation & Sutton SignWriting

Joe Martin
Western Washington University



For really detailed study linguists use a phonetic feature matrix (see note A). Features in this sense are the specific settings of the parameters. For example, generally the vocal cords can either be vibrating or not, so there are two possible settings. We say Voicing is a parameter, and it has two possible features, voiced and voiceless.

Note A: A common misunderstanding is that phonemes are sounds. Actually a phoneme is a theoretical construct; no one has ever uttered a phoneme. "At first glance it might seem inappropriate to use terms based on sound-phoneme and phonology--to refer to soundless languages. The earliest work avoided the problem by coining the term chereme. By today it has been demonstrated conclusively though that these units are organizationally and functionally equivalent at every level of linguistic structure. The terminology refers to the pattern of organization of the linguistic signals rather than to the formal properties of the signals themselves. The organization of the symbols is the same whether instantiated in the oral-aural or visual-gestural modality. Today it has become standard to use traditional terminology for sublexical structure regardless of modality" (Valli & Lucas 255). Presenters at linguistic conferences no longer feel any need to justify the use of the terms. Like it or not it is now proper to speak of the phonetics and phonology of Sign.

In most languages the parameter of tongue position includes about six locations in the mouth, so there are six possible features to choose from. To describe a segment, a feature matrix lists all the parameters, with the specific feature for each one described in anatomical terms as in Figure 3. In actual use it gets much more complicated, but all it really does is give the same information as the schematics. It is really impossible to "read" feature notation (Kim 150).

Figure 3

A simpler way to describe speech segments is with an alphabet. For this, a set of symbols is chosen and used as names for the segments as we did above with [u] and [o]. Along the top of Figure 3 we can see the names given to each segment by the International Phonetic Alphabet. Our own Roman alphabet is shown in Figure 1. So these are three ways of describing segments of language: alphabets, schematics, and feature notation. All three of these do the same job of describing particular segments of language.


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Describing Language